Batman and the Joker as the Apollo/Dionysius Archetypes

The Apollonian/Dionysian Dialectical Dichotomy
Contributing writer David Shankle gives yet another angle on Batman: Dark Knight 
After revisiting Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight, viewing the juxtaposition between Batman and The Joker in a Nietzschean context made a lot more sense.
Nietzsche, in The Birth of Tragedy, used the Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy from Ancient Greece to explain the constant struggle between Apollo's order (law, beauty, reason) and Dionysos' chaos (hedonistic appetites, drunkenness, sexual urges, primal instinct). The light side and the dark side. Thus, as this reasoning goes, to totally repress the darkness would be to remain ignorant, and thus misunderstand reality as it as only understood in the Apollonian context. So Nietzsche proposed that these two elements were not opposing, but rather complementary. Batman, the Dark Knight, represents Apollo. He operates on vitruous principles and seeks law, order and justice above all things. The Joker represents Dionysos: he seeks chaos and ultimately the disruption of order. He doesn't value material things. When rewarded with a room-full of money, he dispassionately doused it with gasoline and set it on fire. He is therefore a philosophical villain, viewing the order enforced by Batman as a mere illusion. The Joker intends to show Gotham City that these delusions of order, their "system," is feeble. This is further highlighted when The Joker talks to Harvey Dent (Two-Face) in the hospital.

“Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it. You know, I just… do things. The mob has plans, the cops have plans, Gordon’s got plans. You know, they’re schemers. Schemers trying to control their little worlds. I’m not a schemer. I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are.”

Harvey Dent is an interesting character, because as the D.A., he values and fights for this same order as Batman. However, as symbolized by the two-sided coin, there was a there romanticized view of chaos, and its complementary role in a truly fair order. So Harvey Dent/Two-Face was the living embodiment of the struggle between the light and the darkness, the order and the chaos. Later in their discussion, The Joker expands on his role:

“Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos. Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It’s fair.”

So we see this battle between the Apollonian/Batman force and the Dionysian/Joker force for the heart and soul of Harvey Dent. Everything Dent has fought for came crashing down, and The Joker strikes a chord with him — paving the way for the transition into Two-Face.

What is probably the strongest symbolic imagery the film offers is the scene wherein Batman finally captures The Joker:

Batman and The Joker are facing (The Joker upside down), which makes for a very yin-yang imagery: as above, so below.  The Joker reveals that he doesn’t want to destroy Batman. He needs Batman. And they are destined to partake in this Apollonian/Dionysian duality duel for eternity. Their Nietzschean relationship has come full circle.

The Joker: Oh, you. You just couldn’t let me go, could you? This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. You are truly incorruptible, aren’t you? Huh? You won’t kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness. And I won’t kill you because you’re just too much fun. I think you and I are destined to do this forever.
Batman: You’ll be in a padded cell forever.
The Joker: Maybe we can share one. You know, they’ll be doubling up, the rate this city’s inhabitants are losing their minds.
Batman: This city just showed you that it’s full of people ready to believe in good.
The Joker: Until their spirit breaks completely. Until they get a good look at the real Harvey Dent and all the heroic things he’s done. You didn’t think I’d risk losing the battle for Gotham’s soul in a fist fight with you? No. You need an ace in the hole. Mine’s Harvey.
Batman: What did you do?
The Joker: I took Gotham’s white knight and I brought him down to our level. It wasn’t hard. You see, madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little push!

The film ends with Batman, who himself has disrupted the order of Gotham City, despite being the Apollonian figure, realizing that he must operate outside of the order, in order to enforce order. This makes him an even greater supernatural figure, rather than simply a crime-fighter. He is a deified force of Gotham and is the Order. He will constantly battle the agents of chaos in an eternal battle for Gotham’s soul. Apollo is thus the Dark Knight.

7 Comments on Batman and the Joker as the Apollo/Dionysius Archetypes

  1. I guess that’s the view the director was trying to force upon as: Batman is a good guy, Joker is a bad guy, but, unfortunately, they cannot exist without each other. But let’s face the truth! Batman is in no way a good guy. He’s definitely a member of the elite, one of the richest & most powerful persons in the world & comes from an ancient and powerful family. In “Batman Begins” Bruce Wayne was trained by Ras Al Ghul to become a warrior without fear – the methods of training included abuse of some psychotropic instance and systematic physical and mental trauma. So when Bruce Wayne returns home, with the help of the highest technological achievements available only to him, he becomes Batman, which is to be perceived as a symbol of justice for the people of Gotham. So what happens here is that his personality becomes fragmented. By night he’s a fighter for justice, but by day he’s a playboy, reckless billionaire & enfant terrible. Being Batman he fights selected villains without any rules & helps chosen people, but being Bruce Wayne he doesn’t even try to change the system, to show a good example, to fight corruption, etc. His company Wayne Enterprises is apparently involved with the CIA, the military & weapons production. Batman can only exist in a Gotham, which is corrupt, violent, unsafe. I think the character of Batman cannot be considered as “good”. To me his character is an impersonation of a high-degree freemason, who underwent some form of trauma-based mind-control. To justify his unlawful deeds and necessity of Batman to the people of Gotham, he uses a typical masonic credo “order out of chaos”. As Joker himself puts it he’s “an agent of chaos”. That is the real reason why Batman didn’t kill Joker – he needs people like Joker to justify his existence to the masses. In “Dark Knight” actually the “good” Batman stooped to another level of manipulation of the masses – not only he justified the spying on people’s cell phones by the need to catch Joker, he lied to the masses about Harvey Dent due to political reasons! To sum up, in my point of view the Batman doesn’t represent Apollo, but more likely he represents an illuminated member of the elite with a God complex, who manipulates the people of Gotham into thinking he’s the new messiah and their only hope. To justify that view he need super-villains like the Joker to terrorize Gotham regularly in order to enact the masonic concept of “order out of chaos”. To me the whole “Batman” franchise is a piece of work based on elitist world-view with some definite masonic references, another media-machine to brainwash our society.

    • I think you are slightly misreading it.

      You say the director is forcing on the audience the image of Batman being the good guy and that of Joker being the bad guy. The point of Jay008’s article, however, is that it is not just about good vs bad, but structure vs chaos.

      Batman tries to keep structure intact as if, like you said, he needs the dichotomy of good vs bad to make sense of the world; to separate the lawful from the lawless and create an us vs them situation in which he is able to function. The Joker repeatedly tries to turn this structure on its head through chaos, thereby showing there is no such thing as being inherently good or bad (i.e. He brings down the white knight Harvey Dent, turns law abiding citizens onto killing a fellow ‘innocent’ man, also that experiment on the boats). Note that this is different from simply going against the system, which is what ordinary mobsters did up to this point.

      In a way, the Joker succeeded, because at the end of the movie Batman is able to function outside of the system. He can now be both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ at the same time, creating structure and destroying it where he sees fit.

      I like how Nolan described the Joker as an absolute. He is less of a character and more of a concept. I think this reflects in his origin stories as well. It doesn’t really matter which of his stories about how he got his scars are true, but rather that they somehow reflect Batman’s origin stories (both dealing with father/son relationships and loss or betrayal of a lover).

      Also, I thought it was brilliant of jay008 to point out the yin/yang imagery. So subtle, yet so strong of an image.

  2. Mr. Mokrestov, you read mind, since last night I started a review of Batman Begins noting just that point.

    • Yep, many interesting details can be found in the franchise. For example, the technological genius, who supplies Batman with all his weapons & gadgets, is named Lucius! And the butler Alfred is also a very interesting character, the way he subtly manipulates Bruce Wayne… Anyway, good luck with you review! I’m looking forward to it. Thanks for your excellent work.

  3. good article.
    and alexander,yes I was thinking along those lines too,I once wrote a little piece about bruce wayne and batman being illuminati. bruce practiclly was going to buy the election,using harvey as his inside man. He says something along the lines of…”after one fundraiser with my friends you wont need anymore,”….
    and alfred sure was suspicious,after he told his story about burning down foriegn villages to look for some jewel thief I was like WTF is old alfred cia??? f course theres so much more,and even the poster was a reference to 911 with the batman symbol burned into the skyscraper,reminding us of the hole the plane left in the tower.

  4. chomskysright // August 28, 2012 at 6:58 pm // Reply

    “The Joker” is the modern archetype of Robin Hood without his band of merry men. I’m dwelling on this. Here is piece from my blog which concerns itself with mental health issues in NC: Marsha V. Hammond, PhD: Licensed Psychologist, Asheville, NC
    e mail:
    NC Mental health Reform blogspot:

    “I was sitting on my front porch this evening after reading the NYT article on James Eagan, who played ‘the Joker’ (there is some psychic link in what he did and that of actor Heath Ledger who played that role, so astoundingly, you can never forget it: the tight, coiled, ruthless, poignant madness) as he blew away the lives of 12 people in Aurora, CO a few weeks ago. Here is the NYT article; such a paper there never has been/ never will be again in the US or maybe the world, certainly not for Americans:

    I looked at the face of the boy, in highschool, smiling too brightly—-to the left of the photo with which we are now familiar which is that of a forlorn soul who has piteously cursed his community and perhaps his own soul itself.

    As I meditated on the matter, I found myself winging into his jail cell. What I saw there was a circle of angels, guarding him; they were forlorn, distraught, heads down, in confession, as it were, praying about the human dilemma. I envisioned myself holding his hands, looking in his face, and saying, ‘Friend.’ For surely, this young man must have a sense of being split assunder from the rest of humanity.

    I saw the angels’ circle open in order to allow the slain souls to move out of the circle in order to find some measure of peace somewhere else in the cosmos. And then it enclosed around James Holmes again.

    I don’t know why this guy affects me like this. Maybe its because of my client, I’ll call him, Hank. The first time I saw him he came into my office with his hand in his pocket, working something. I thought: ‘what has he got in his pocket.’ He told me sometime later that it was a knife. That afternoon he was diagnosed by me as having schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type.

    James Holmes, as per the NYT article, texted a friend in his PhD program a query as to whether she knew what ‘dysphoric mania’ was—as he was crashing. Its a kind of bipolar disorder, associated w/ psychosis. My client, Hank, had been psychotic in the past.

    A couple of years ago he told me that he saw the devil standing behind me. I looked around and said, “Hank: the devil is not there’, poking my hand into the void. The other day Hank told me that a local lay preacher suggested to him that his mental illness was ’caused by the devil.’ Hank has a habit of calling me on an almost nightly basis to simply check in.

    Do you think that the psychiatrist or other mental health people at the U. of CO, Denver, were available to James Holmes like this? I admit to being peeved that my diligence is dismissed as associated with NC Mental Health ‘Reform.’ What do ‘those jokers’ think this business is about? Do they think it is a 9-5 job? If not, then why don’t they pay us and give us street cred for the work we do?

    But I digress.

    This past Saturday Hank, when he called me at 7 pm, Hank related the story about the preacher to me. I told him that ‘this is an old way of thinking about mental health stuff’ and that what goes on with him is related to a problem w/ the chemistry of his brain. I suggested that he has an opportunity to educate others about what goes on with him. And, thank goddess, Hank does this more and more regularly. Why, the other day, he stopped his car, and simply talked to a man to tell him that his name was ‘Hank’ and that he was ‘glad to meet you.’ In the little town of Waynesville this was not thought of as weird but simply a friendly if slightly strange gesture.

    On the other hand, I said, to Hank, that if that preacher wants to pray for you, I would recommend that you ask him to.

    Tonight Hank called me and advised me that while waiting to see the new psychiatrist at the local private company in Waynesville, NC, that another person with Bipolar Disorder was sitting in close proximity to him and they exchanged information about how it is to live w/ Bipolar disorder.

    Hank told the other person waiting to see the psychiatrist that ‘I’ll pray for you tonight.’ Understandably, the other person was grateful.

    So, tonight I have prayed for James Holmes. I winged him a message suggesting that he was not devoid of people praying for him and all those sentient souls he sent hurdling away on that dark night, as he evoked Heath Ledger’s Joker: a poignantly lost soul who in fact flamed out no so very long after he played that part.

    Send a prayer up for James Holmes and the souls he inadvertently blew out into the cosmos.

    Or as my supervisor at University at Alabama Birmingham/ VA Hospital told me upon finishing my internship there, as associated with a little card he handed out to interns: “Pray for your profession.”

    Indeed. “

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